Grist for Mills

In his controversial books White Collar and The American Middle Class and The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills used his Texas upbringing to turn the nation's understanding of democracy upside down.

Too many social scientists write incomprehensible articles on inconsequential topics for journals that no one reads except their own colleagues. (The lead article in the March 2000 issue of the American Journal of Sociology is titled “The Instability of Androgynous Names: The Symbolic Maintenance of Gender Boundaries.”) But there have been notable exceptions—from Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey to John Kenneth Galbraith—who have sought a wider audience and embraced a broader purpose in their work. C. Wright Mills was one of these. Born in Waco in 1916, educated at Dallas’ Technical High School and at Texas A&M and the University of Texas, he taught sociology in the fifties at Columbia University. Perhaps no sociologist in the past half century has had so much influence over how Americans think—or aroused as much ire from his colleagues.

Mills wrote in a time of popular apathy but great intellectual ferment. Along with David Riesman, Dwight Macdonald, and William F. Buckley, Jr., Mills understood that America had turned a corner in its history. It had inherited global responsibility and had become a country of big government and big business, many of whose citizens no longer worked on their own farms or for small businesses, but in large glass office buildings. While Mills’s academic colleagues often dwelt on the effects or symptoms of change, Mills, whose motto was to “take it big,” wanted to know what it all meant. Half a century later, his answers continue to resonate.

As Mills’s motto suggests, his intellectual approach clearly bore the traces of his Texas upbringing, but because he was often characterized as a provincial by his critics, he was loath to discuss his Texas roots publicly during his lifetime. But now, with the publication of C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by his daughters Kathryn and Pamela Mills, we can learn in Mills’s own words how profoundly his upbringing in Texas contributed to his later life and work.

Mills, who died of a heart attack in 1962 at age 45, wrote two books that are still widely read: White Collar and the American Middle Class, which came out in 1951, and, better known, The Power Elite, which was published in 1956. A third, The Sociological Imagination, is treasured by academics who, like Mills, don’t fit their profession’s stifling mold. He also wrote two books on foreign policy, The Causes of World War Three and Listen, Yankee, that, to the benefit of Mills’s reputation, are no longer available in bookstores, except perhaps in Havana.

The Power Elite turned the high-school-civics-class view of American political power on its head. Mills argued that American politics was ruled not by citizens controlling their government by the power of the vote but by an “intricate set of overlapping cliques” that occupied the “command posts” of the country’s great economic, military, and political institutions. He called them the “power elite.” “In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them,” Mills wrote. His theory was hotly debated, but many of its essentials are now conceded: how on a critical international issue, such as permitting China to enter the World Trade Organization, the top leaders of business and finance will suddenly close ranks with the upper echelons of the State and Treasury departments, many of whom came from the same circles.

In White Collar, Mills subverted the prevailing fifties view of America as a Horatio Alger land of farms and factories. Instead, he portrayed an America shaped by a new white-collar class—from secretaries and schoolteachers to salesmen and accountants. The rise of this new class defied the Marxist prediction that America and other advanced capitalist countries would be increasingly divided between a large and potentially revolutionary blue-collar working class and a small and corrupt ruling class. But it also defied the American dream that every citizen could expect, on his or her merits, to rise from worker to owner. “The twentieth-century white-collar man has never been independent as the farmer used to be, nor as hopeful of the main chance as the businessman,” Mills wrote. “He is always somebody’s man, the corporation’s, the government’s, the army’s; and he is seen as the man who does not rise.” Mills called him “the new little man in the big world of the twentieth century.” His critique of American democracy and his vision of a white-collar America would endure. They still remain the radical guideposts, the “con” of the pro and con, in the continuing debate over political power and economic opportunity in America.

During his lifetime, Mills’s critics would frequently attribute his political heresies or methodological transgressions to the impediment of having grown up and gone to college in Texas. An acerbic reviewer of The Sociological Imagination conjured up an image of Mills as a “burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along.” Mills was enraged by this kind of ad hominem attack. He wrote the editor of the American Sociological Review, which had published the article, “I haven’t been in Texas for twenty years, except to lecture once or twice; I am rather frightened of horses and certainly wouldn’t attempt to ride one.” In 1960 he wrote in a letter to the publisher Carl Marzani, “I am not ‘a Texan’ any more than I am ‘a New Yorker.’ In fact there are several places where I feel much more ‘at home’ than either, all of them outside the USA.”

But in his correspondence and unpublished autobiographical writings, some of which take the form of letters to an imaginary Russian friend that he called Tovarich, Mills fully acknowledged how important his Texas roots were. He believed that he could see America more clearly because he came from a region that was still experiencing the changes that had already occurred in New York or Chicago. What was hidden to others by its very ubiquity was still


More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week